On the NFL, Goodell, ESPN and #FreeSimmons

#FreeSimmons. The hashtag that temporarily rocks the Twitter-verse. Free him because we know he’s lived in chains for too long. Simmons has been shackled to ESPN, making millions of dollars and building his brand, for far too long. First a writer, then a podcast voice, next a Twitter beacon, eventually the curator of one of the more interesting sports and culture websites that inhabits our vast internet, Grantland. Simmons now has as keen an awareness of the pulse of our modern culture and the most ubiquitous platform on which to opine. He is today’s deity of sports media. And ESPN, the stoic father-figure of today’s deity, knows the power of his influence.

The ever-popular B.S. Report podcast is Simmons’ own little corner of the internet that he would like to claim total authority over, except that ESPN occasional scolds Simmons for his opinions, suspending him, effectively putting him on “mute” for a few weeks.

As you may have heard, the National Football League is in the middle of a public relations disaster, a shit-storm, and the fecal matter has been flying out from the front office whenever Roger Goodell opens his door, which is why he’s mostly silent. The NFL’s decision makers have been consistently evasive and pleaded ignorance on a number of issues over the last several years. Finally the rising tide has caught up with them. The most popular sport in our land is also the most scandalized. Is it surprising? Not really.

The Violence Inherent in the System (cue Monty Python music)

We are talking about an inherently violent game in which incredibly large and spectacularly fast men launch themselves at each other hundreds of times each year, sometimes with the intention of injuring each other, as has been documented by 2012’s New Orleans Saints team-wide scandal, dubbed “Bounty gate.” The fact that men don’t actually die on the field every Sunday is somewhat remarkable. These are our modern “warriors,” and we glamorize their physical courage and mythologize their manhood. When many of these “warriors” do things off the field that aren’t so glamorous or courageous, we turn to the $44 million dollar man, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

“Don’t worry,” is the subtext. “We’re in control of these (fill-in the blank, depending on how you think the NFL’s front office individuals view the men involved in these altercations.)” A fine. A suspension. Pending legal action. Settlements. A brief flurry of ESPN-scrolled controversy. We are so immune to this type of coverage, it seamlessly blends into the background. It shouldn’t be ignored, but it becomes so common and so casually and scandalously covered, it becomes either meaningless or nauseating, depending on your perspective.

ESPN is not the only enemy here, and has in fact been critical of Goodell over the last few months, though one could argue it was unavoidable that they show some ethical backbone when the public demands it. The investigative show, Outside the Lines, attempts to tackle the issues, so to speak, but they also milk the issues like overripe udders; grist for the mill, sparking both outrage and satisfaction. In the center of these whirling winds is Roger Goodell, the face of the NFL. An easy target who has rarely been so clearly targeted (until now), because of the popularity of his sport, and the tactically evasive legalistic and linguistic practices the NFL employs. With modern media (Twitter, Facebook, TMZ, Deadspin, video clips, audio clips, and fear of losing sponsors) turning on the morality lights (morality strobe lights? morality off, then on, then off, etc.), the casual fan now demands some action. Consumers of sporting entertainment must now occasionally reckon with the disturbing (to the myopic) reality that the institutional politics and ethical/unethical policing of athletes cannot be so cleanly separated from the games themselves. Why? Because a sea of male football fans who happen to be in committed, loving relationships now have to explain their views on domestic violence and child abuse to their partners before they can watch football with a working conscience.

Goodell’s Approval Rating, Simmons Commentary and ESPN’s Suspension of Simmons

Last week, Sports Illustrated polled 500 NFL fans on their opinions of controversial issues related to the league. Only 29% of respondents believe Goodell should keep his job in the wake of the controversy.  On September 11, Simmons devoted his “mail bag” column to Goodell and the reasons he should be fired or forced to resign. Goodell finally spoke to the media last Friday, in a press conference that was hilariously evasive and defensive (check John Oliver’s commentary below). Unsurprisingly, the string of words that Goodell spoke did little to diffuse the public’s collective frustration and anger with the league office. This past Monday, Simmons used his podcast to explain his personal animosity toward both Goodell and ESPN’s censorship machine. After calling Goodell a “liar” and the presser “pure fucking bullshit,” Simmons went on to pre-emptively defend himself against the ESPN higher-ups (Yes, even the saintly Simmons still has higher-ups at ESPN) who would likely take issue with his words about Goodell. By “daring” them to do something, ESPN’s authority was tested. This was akin to a teenager daring his parents to ground him after he comes home after curfew once again.

Here’s the thing: we should applaud Simmons for taking the somewhat progressive stance that Goodell’s line of bullshit is intolerable and the NFL absolutely must make real change in the way they handle things. On the other hand, it wasn’t exactly going out on a limb.

Simmons knows he has a massive and loyal following and he knows that the vast majority of his fans are under the age of 50 (Simmons himself is 45), relatively progressive, and have no love for commissioners of any sport. He also knows the vast majority of his fans do not approve of having the wool so obviously pulled over their eyes the way they used to. Simmons has been vocal in his criticisms of former-NBA commissioner David Stern for most of his writing life. In fact, since moving to the ESPN-funded Grantland, Simmons has increasingly voiced his concerns for the network’s choices. From criticizing the lowest-common-denominator morning show First Take to this recent move, Simmons knows that his core fans are ambivalent at best about ESPN, and positioning himself in opposition to ESPN actually makes Simmons appear to be the lone wolf he probably wishes he could still be. Instead, he is the leader of the wolf-pack, that traveling horde of talented writers at Grantland, the Honors English class of the high school, instead of the remedial-level ESPN. On Twitter, where Simmons has just under 3 million non-wolf-pack-leaders, Simmons is impenetrable.

Which brings us to #FreeSimmons. Outrage! Simmons is silenced! Three weeks of the mute button! Podcastus Interruptus! The humanity!

Is ESPN right to punish Simmons for stating what most semi-conscious sports fans already felt about Roger Goodell? Are they simply doing what they have to do to appease the owners (and ignore their collective conscience) of the already embattled NFL? Should Simmons be set free? Free from what? Daring his teacher to send him to the principal again? He’ll be even cooler when he comes out.

What would be better than #FreeSimmons? Simmons asking his merry band of followers to reconsider their interest (and his own) in the NFL. Of course, that would be going out on a limb. That would be genuinely controversial. That would mean getting political and alienating a huge portion of his audience. He knows them too well to do that. Instead, he’ll enjoy his three-week vacation.

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Athletes are Not Superheroes or Evil Villains. Also, Howard Megdal on The NBA and Labor Rights

As sports fans, many of us have been trained to view athletes as superheroes or villains. The scandal-fed modern news cycle and ESPN’s endless mythologizing makes it easy to remove the human element in regard to professional athletes until they do disturbingly human things like Ray Rice or Michael Vick. Then hold them up as human sacrifices to be burned at the stake. Very few people condone punching women in the face or forcing your dogs to kill each other. It’s easy. And it’s even easier when an athlete who has been endlessly praised is then taken down. You can almost hear the “whoosh-ing” sound of their fall. Psychologically, it should remind you of high school. If sports and sports media enables a widespread popularity contest, An athletic scandal is no different from the popular high school athlete getting suspended from school. Those who envied him and hated how loved he was get to celebrate. Isn’t that what we see…over and over and over?

While few are uncertain about their view of Ray Rice, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell gets to plead ignorance, hoping the media moment passes like a thunderstorm. Some are asking for Goodell to get fired, some are hoping he resigns, and many, who still have love for the National Football League, are just waiting until their team plays on Sunday, so they can get back to escaping from the reality of that ugly thing we know as the “human element” and fall back into the superhero/villain routine. Goodell gets the special treatment.

Howard Megdal, writing for Vice Sports, has penned an excellent examination of the NBA and it’s Labor situation and free agency, following the Paul George injury and Marc Cuban’s asinine comments on what should be done about NBA players playing in international competition. Before I excerpt from Megdal’s piece, I’ll mention a news item related to Paul George after the horrific injury he suffered in late July. I had just read Lee Jenkins’ compassionate piece on Paul George and resilience. Then I see that Paul George bought a Ferrari to “lift his spirits.” How is it that an athlete buying a luxury sports car is news? All that I can see it doing is two things: 1) Make people who want to live vicariously through Paul George’s success feel better about themselves. 2) Make people go back to envying and vilifying an athlete/celebrity for buying a ridiculously expensive sports car. This isn’t news. This is the bullshit that we are fed.

Now an excerpt from Megdal’s piece on the NBA and Labor:

Cuban mentioned the NBA’s willingness “to commit what amounts to more than a billion dollars in salaries” to the cause of international basketball. Ah, but which salaries? Player salaries. Mark Cuban’s not committing a damn thing. He doesn’t own his players, as much as his dehumanizing description of human beings as “player salaries” would make you think otherwise.

Those player salaries, by the way, were earned because the league profited from selling the chance to watch those players—in person, on television, intermittently on League Pass when it decides to function—not as some independent entity that, say, Dirk Nowitzki is lucky to have found. Those player salaries, incidentally, that are part of a shrinking percentage of NBA revenue, revenue that keeps on growing and disproportionately flowing back to… Mark Cuban.

Which brings us to the other half of the equation: Whose risk? The player’s risk. Sure, if the best 450 players collectively disappeared from the NBA, the league would have a problem. But any one player? Well, the business model survives. Paul George will miss a season—you can be sure the NBA will make a ton of money this season anyway.

Fun fact, Paul George has a max contract, an Orwellian phrase if one ever existed. Remember, we’re supposed to honor a team’s desires here because they’ve invested so much money in a player. Of course, it is the artificial construct of the salary cap, and the tightly controlled salaries within it, that had an otherworldly player like George limited to five years, $90 million on a “max contract” in the first place. In a true free market, George would make many tens of millions more. Instead, thanks to a swell-for-owners collective bargaining agreement, he’s getting paid like Brian McCann of the New York Yankees. McCann is a fine player, but he’s not even one of the ten best players in Major League Baseball, or close to it.

But of course, the players accepted the current salary cap and a greatly reduced share of total league revenue following the most recent lockout. The common, condescending perspective that players owe their livelihood to the owners helped the owners in the court of public opinion, as it so often does during labor struggles in professional sports. But here we are, with players like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony forced to choose between getting paid as close to fair value as the system allows or taking a pay cut to play for a winning team, like Tim Duncan does. Naturally, Duncan is held up as a model without anyone asking “Why on Earth is that a choice he’s forced to make?”

The common refrain: because he makes “enough.” Never mind that we’re talking about money that exists because Duncan and Anthony are so compelling to watch that millions of people the world over tune in to do just that. Never mind that this money, if not spent on Anthony and Duncan, isn’t going to hire more teachers or provide health care to needy children. It’s going into the pockets of owners who were so unhappy with their “more than enough” that they locked out the players and reduced their share of the league’s revenue from 57 percent to around 50 percent.

That’s 50-50—you earn 50 percent by doing things no one else on the planet can, and we’ll earn 50 percent by letting you.

Read the rest here: https://sports.vice.com/article/the-next-nba-labor-battle-is-already-here

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NBA Ownership and Tone-Deafness: A Brief Consideration of Bruce Levenson’s Email, Atlanta, and Myopia

Maybe one of the reasons the topic of race continues to dominate our culture in general and sporting culture specifically, is that so many people are unclear just what their own views on the topic actually are. Humans tend to fear what they don’t know. In an increasingly segregated America, fear and anxiety seem to be growing steadily. Only when it bubbles over in relatively obscure places like Ferguson, Missouri or Donald Sterling’s living room, do we actually engage in any kind of national conversation. The rest of the time it is so ubiquitous, so omnipresent and systemic as to be rendered nearly invisible. You know the phrase, “Out of sight, out of mind?” That’s how most people live. Instead of occasionally considering what is beyond their sight, whether it be an issue of race, genocide, or domestic violence, most people keep the ugly and complicated stuff out of mind. Life is messy enough with all the little errands and responsibilities. Most people never wade out into the deeper water.

In academia, race is often described as a “social construct.” Unless you somehow believe in strict genetic differences, and you are uneducated regarding concepts like “nature” vs. “nurture,” the idea of race is complex. America’s empire grew with the banishment of Native Americans, and the enslavement of African Americans. An “us” versus “them” view of the world was made possible by America’s founding fathers, rationalized by the desire for capital, the use of guns, and the fact that they themselves were escaping from brutal situations.

Let’s start there because the African-American wealth concentrated in and around Atlanta today is in part a response to that original enslavement. What was the “Back to the South” movement, if not a desire to reclaim a place that once was the root of so much misery and pain? According to In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience,

Many migrants – a majority of them college-educated – seek economic opportunities in the reascending southern economy; some want to escape deteriorating conditions in northern cities; others return to be nearer to kin, to care for aging relatives, or to retire in a familiar environment with a better quality of life than that found in the urban North.

All, in some way, reclaim the South as their home, the place that African Americans built and where their roots run deep.”

I’m not a citizen of Atlanta. I have not spent much time in the South. I don’t pretend to know why the Atlanta Hawks are the second-least Google-searched NBA team in the league, though Nate Silver’s research shows a strong connection between unpopular internet hoops teams and race. Based on Silver’s numbers, the Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards and Memphis Grizzlies have the highest proportion of African-American fans in the NBA and are among the least searched for. That may say as much about internet tendencies, which are often class-dominated, as it does about race.

In any case, the Hawks were estimated to have lost approximately $13 million (after revenue sharing) last season (via Grantland’s NBA front office sources). This despite the team playing relatively well–especially before a season-ending injury to center Al Horford.

Soon-to-be-former Atlanta Hawks majority owner Bruce Levenson’s now notorious email has been dissected by Albert Burneko (Deadspin), Rembert Browne (Grantland) and William Rhoden (NY Times), among others. Instead of talking about how racist the email was (somewhat), or defending Levenson’s myopic prose as merely a businessman’s attempt at profitability, let’s talk about reality.

Reality always has been and always will be subjective. Being culturally aware, intellectually curious, and self-reflective are ways in which to deal with reality’s subjectivity…and not expose yourself as a bumbling fool. I believe the official business term is CYA: “cover your ass.” Of course, part of the reason why modern media works the way it does is that the bumbling fools have more documented avenues in which to expose themselves (more graphically) than they have in the past.

Everyone paying attention (not enough of us) knew former Clippers owner Donald Sterling was an out-of-touch old man and a racist long before his recorded voice became national news/satire. Real estate was the source of Sterling’s wealth. His treatment of tenants resulted in the largest housing discrimination lawsuit in U.S. history, as Dave Zirin wrote about long before the recent scandal in his book, Bad Sports, examining a handful of the most despicable sports owners in America.

Most NBA owners are not known by even hardcore NBA fans and NBA media as much of anything. Unless they own high-profile teams or do something especially ridiculous, we rarely hear about sports owners. Especially owners who belong to ownership groups.

An example of a mild case of tone-deafness: Warriors owner Joe Lacob openly discussing how he and new Warrior coach Steve Kerr know each other well through playing golf together (highlighting the impact of exclusive membership which clearly impacts hiring practices). Read Marcus Thompson’s excellent take on the Warriors, Joe Lacob and the firing of Mark Jackson here.

From Thompson’s piece (for the blog of the San Jose Mercury News):

I believe race can be a factor without malice being part of it. The reality is sports is a place where race, culture, class, religion and every other dividing line collide. It is naive to think issues won’t arise out of that. I know people like to view sports as an escape from real life. But your favorite escape is fashioned by real life, and it’s importance to our society has made it real life. So these things can’t be avoided.

An example of a more virulent case of tone-deafness, which deeply alienates any progressive citizens of Atlanta: Hawks soon-to-be-former co-owner Bruce Levenson’s email. Levenson’s underlying thesis is that the Hawks would sell more tickets if they could just keep the black fans away. By emphasizing the need for “35-55 year old white males” to buy season tickets, and highlighting the perceived fears and racial biases of that non-ticket-buying demographic, the content and tone of Levenson’s email go from a somewhat reasonable marketing-brainstorm to an entirely detached tone, which aims to pin-down the complexities of black-white relations in modern Georgia. Levenson makes all kinds of claims about arena operations being “too black.” It is alienating and speculatively racist. It is as if Levenson believes white money can save the Hawks, but African-American money can’t.

The whole debacle was sparked by a quote read (presumably to ownership) by Hawks General Manager Danny Ferry, who was apparently reciting a scouting report (without editing out the inherent racism). The quote was regarding then free-agent Luol Deng: “He is still a young guy overall. He is a good guy overall. But he is not perfect. He’s got some African in him. And I don’t say that in a bad way.”

Before entering the front office, Ferry played in the NBA. He was a Caucasian power forward without any African in him…except the African that is in every human being…the universally African roots of the homo sapien.

In a city as huge and as heavily African-American as Atlanta, how many of the seven original members of the Atlanta Spirt Group (who bought the Hawks in 2004) are African-American?

Zero.

Are you surprised?

No.

Why?

Because, as Chris Rock informed us so eloquently years ago, there is a gigantic difference between being rich and being wealthy. You must be wealthy to belong to the inner circle of NBA Owners.

What might surprise you, though, is that there is one African-American owner in the NBA.. His name is Michael Jordan. Back when His Airness was in his playing days, he was more concerned with money than politics. The legendary Jordan refused to endorse Harvey Gantt, a Democrat who was then running to unseat long-time Republican senator Jesse Helms in North Carolina. Jordan’s famous reply, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

What can we conclude about the Hawks debacle? It’s about money….and race…and the idea of ownership and appealing to the wealthiest and whitest. It’s about cultural blind-spots and speculation about discomfort. It’s about Atlanta and yet…there is more than one version of modern Atlanta. It’s not all black and white.

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